January 12, 2010

Alternative Groupings of Early Modern Philosophers

Last month, there was some blog discussion about historiography and teaching methods in early modern philosophy. The standard story is evidently due to Hegel, and continues to be standard despite being unpopular among specialists in history of modern. It groups modern philosophers before Kant as follows:


Dana McCourt, blogging at The Edge of the American West remarked:
The virtues of the standard story are these. Having a narrative that unites the whole period and builds towards contemporary thought helps give a survey course some thematic unity, which is important given the difficulty of the readings. It's also the standard story that almost every practicing philosopher has encountered, which makes it both very easy to teach and the conservative option. Given that the students are almost certainly going to forget about most of the particulars after the final exam, if they're left with a vague idea that Descartes is like the Matrix and Hume is like modern science and Kant said something but damned if I was doing the reading a week before finals, there's not too much harm done.

The vice of the standard story is that it's false. As Holbo notes, Descartes' philosophy, far from springing full-born from the head of Socrates, has much in common with the musty medieval theologians he criticizes. None of the rationalists shunned empirical study, and the empiricists include Berkeley (which always struck me as a stretch of the framework.) Making the whole period about warring factions in epistemology also means that certain writings of the moderns that don't fit easily into that framework tend to get ignored.

Now, I more or less agree with Dana's remarks here, though I think she may be being a bit hyperbolic. If what we're interested in is the history of epistemology, then the standard story is not false. It so happens that among these great philosophers the epistemology lines up with the geography, and this gives the story a nice sort of unity and makes things easy to remember. It is very convenient for intro classes to arrange early modern philosophers into the categories of continental rationalist and British empiricist.

However, taking this as our primary interest influences how we read these philosophers, and this can give rise to misinterpretation. The only one of these philosophers, it seems to me, for whom the rationalist/empiricist debate can be considered a primary interest (I do not say the primary interest) is Locke. To make rationalist vs. empiricism the primary issue is to see the matter through a somewhat distorting Kantian/Hegelian lens.

This is especially well brought out, as Dana points out, by the case of Berkeley. Berkeley is in fact (I would argue) the most radical of the empiricists. Furthermore, he was heavily influenced by Locke, and was a major influence on Hume. However, in most respects he just seems not to fit. Let me, therefore, propose two alternative groupings which have some of the convenience of the standard story, but align more nearly with the issues the philosophers themselves cared about. I think that considering these groupings should also show that which grouping one chooses can influence who the "great" philosophers are supposed to be.

Theo-centric Metaphysicians
Naturalistic Metaphysicians

By 'theo-centric metaphysicians' I mean those philosophers who use theology to solve fundamental metaphysical problems. All of the early modern philosophers believe in God (or at least purport to; questions of sincerity have been raised in a few cases). However, it is a distinctive characteristic of Leibniz, Malebranche, and Berkeley that God is central to their metaphysical theorizing. (This has, I think, resulted in diminished popularity for these thinkers in recent times, though all three are coming back into vogue.)

By 'naturalistic metaphysicians' I mean those who think natural science is going to somehow solve fundamental metaphysical problems. The new science is of course very important to the thought of Berkeley, Malebranche, and especially Leibniz. However, for these thinkers the real answers come from elsewhere. For Descartes, Locke, and Hume, the way natural science describes the world just is the way the world is; scientific explanations are fundamental metaphysical explanations.

First Philosophers
Second Philosophers

The term 'second philosophy' was coined by Penelope Maddy, in a book by that title, to describe her brand of naturalism. To put it most simply, a 'first philosopher' is someone who thinks that there is some part of philosophy which precedes and provides the basis for natural science. A second philosopher thinks that natural science comes first and provides the basis for philosophy.

Though Maddy ultimately concludes that Descartes is not a 'first philosopher' in the sense she finds objectionable (his philosophy is, at least, continuous with natural science), he switches positions on my list. That is, Descartes is a naturalistic metaphysician insofar as he thinks natural science answers fundamental metaphysical questions, but he is a first philosopher insofar as he thinks that some philosophical theorizing needs to be done first to set up natural science. Hobbes, Locke, and Hume don't (in any text I know of) try to provide this sort of foundation for science; they start by assuming that science is right and go from there. (The case of Hume is more complicated than that of Hobbes and Locke because of the conflicting pictures of Hume the Skeptic and Hume the Naturalist. I'm not a Hume expert, so I won't do much arguing for my classification of him.)

My hope is that these schemes are at least somewhat useful in organizing knowledge of early modern philosophy, and that my classifications of individual philosophers are no more controversial than the classification into rationalists and empiricists. Have I succeeded?

Posted by Kenny at January 12, 2010 1:12 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry: http://blog.kennypearce.net/admin/mt-tb.cgi/540
On Attributing Philosophical Errors to the Great Dead Philosophers
Excerpt: Eric Schwitzgebel (author of this fascinating paper on introspection) has a blog post up defending "uncharitable and superficial history of philosophy." At New APPS, Catarina Dutilh Novaes responds, arguing that we should be critical, but not superfici...
Weblog: blog.kennypearce.net
Tracked: August 20, 2012 4:11 PM


I agree with you that it is probably a virtue of your classifications that they mix things up a bit on the who's who front, but I'm still curious about where you'd put someone like Spinoza on your classification scheme.

Posted by: Lewis Powell at January 12, 2010 5:58 PM

Well, the second one is easier than the first. I think it's pretty clear that Spinoza is a 'first philosopher', isn't it?

As far as the first classification, in one sense Spinoza has the most theo-centric metaphysics of all: since the one Substance is God, his whole metaphysics just is his theology. On the other hand, a lot of people think this is an abuse of language and Spinoza doesn't really believe in God in any meaningful sense. Still, he's not particularly naturalistic (in the relevant sense) either.

One of the things I like about the theo-centric vs. naturalistic classification is that it makes a substantive claim about early modern philosophy: the early moderns thought that either theology or science was going to play the central role in solving metaphysical difficulties. (Of course, both philosophy and science are important for all of them.) The downside is that a substantive generalization like this is liable to have exceptions. It seems to me that Spinoza is such an exception. Neither theology in any traditional sense nor natural science seems to me to occupy this kind of central role in his metaphysics.

That's my two cents. Then again, I don't know Spinoza very well.

Posted by: Kenny at January 12, 2010 7:11 PM

If what we're interested in is the history of epistemology, then the standard story is not false.

I think this is true if we are talking about the history of epistemological problems that have come to be standard, because those problems are largely derived from (or through) Hume and Kant, and Hume and Kant were among the ones who made the standard story (it's laid out briefly, for instance, in Hume's Abstract, just not yet with the labels).

Posted by: Brandon at January 25, 2010 6:23 AM

Post a comment

Return to blog.kennypearce.net